Foods to Optimize Athletic Performance Before, During & After Competition

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  • 0:03 Food for Athletes
  • 0:30 Carbohydrate Loading
  • 1:36 Pre-Competition
  • 2:50 During Competition
  • 3:55 Post-Competition
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

Competitive athletes rely on good nutrition to give them an edge over their competition. Learn about carbohydrate loading as well as foods athletes use before, during and after competitions to enhance performance and endurance.

Foods for Athletes

If you would describe yourself as a weekend warrior who enjoys competing in backyard sports with a group of friends, then it is unlikely you require a special nutritional plan. But this is not the case for competitive athletes. For them, choosing the right type and amount of foods to eat before, during and after a competition might be just the edge they need to stay on top of the leaderboard.

Carbohydrate Loading

When it comes to fueling the body, glucose, which is a simple sugar obtained from dietary carbohydrates that is easily converted to energy, tops the list.

This simple sugar is stored in your liver and muscles as glycogen, which you can think of as a form of stored glucose. Competitive athletes want large stores of glycogen because this provides an easy source of glucose that helps them exercise for longer periods.

This is why competitive endurance athletes often use carbohydrate loading, which is an eating strategy used to boost glycogen stores before a competition. Carbohydrate loading, or simply carbo-loading, involves greatly increasing dietary carbohydrate intake for a few days before a high-intensity endurance competition, while at the same time, reducing activity or resting. For example, many marathon race organizers host spaghetti dinners the night before the race to allow racers one last chance to stock up on carbs and boost glycogen storage.


I mentioned that glycogen can be stored in both muscles and the liver. Muscle glycogen stays put until needed during exercise, but liver glycogen can be depleted before exercise begins. This can even happen while you are sleeping because liver glycogen is broken down to supply your blood with glucose if the level dips too low.

Therefore, even if an athlete is carbo-loading in the days leading up to the competition, they will still need a pre-competition meal eaten two to four hours before the event to maximize glycogen stores. A pre-competition meal should contain about 300 calories, with the majority of those calories (about 60-70%) coming from carbohydrates. This meal should also contain a fair amount of protein (about 10-20%), but be low in fat (about 10-25%) and fiber. This is because fats and fiber eaten before competition tend to cause digestive issues that can interfere with performance or create embarrassing consequences during the event. An example of a good pre-competition meal would be a bowl of cereal with milk and a small glass of orange juice eaten a few hours before competition.

During Competition

Fueling the body with calories during exercise is not typically needed unless the competition is scheduled to last more than an hour. However, the body may need some carbohydrates during competition lasting longer than an hour to keep performance high. Appropriate sources of carbs during competition include sports drinks, special carbohydrate gel packs designed for endurance athletes or solid foods, such as a banana or an energy bar. The athlete should aim to get about 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates every hour they are active. Considering that a banana has about 30 grams of carbs, this is not a hard requirement to meet. Most sports drinks and snacks also contain sodium, which is a mineral lost in sweat. By replenishing sodium during exercise, the athlete reduces the risk of hyponatremia, which is a condition in which blood sodium levels drop to abnormally low levels, creating symptoms such as disorientation, seizures, coma and even death.

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